Friday, April 28, 2006

Small Screen Livin', part I

I love large, bright spacious LCD monitors! There's just something special about surrounding yourself with desktop space to use as you see fit. I'd love to have two (or even three) 24" widescreen LCDs working in tandem, allowing me to work uninterrupted and focused on the task at hand and not managing my windows.

My laptop's screen measures barely 10 inches across. Most people see that as a tremendous handicap and the barrier to switching to a smaller laptop and shrinking their traveling weight. I have to admit I had some serious concerns too. I was used to hooking up my 15" laptop to a 21" LCD to get more room when not on the road, so would I be able to put up with 10" screen at all?

What finally pushed me to go ultra-light was the enhanced battery life combined with the incredibly more portable setup. Since my battery can easily last 5 hours (with WiFi enabled) most of the time I leave my AC Adapter behind. And since the laptop is really small and light I don't need heavily padded laptop bag to keep it safe.

Once I made the move the first week on the small screen was a bit scary. It helps that most widescreen ultra-portables sport fairly high 1280x768 resolution, which in itself is not that bad. After only 2 days I was already used to the lack of physical square inches and my old laptop screen looked simply gigantic. I did make some changes to my setup to make this possible, I hope these tips help you as well.

Large fonts

Your average computer screen displays 96 DPI (Dots Per Inch), some going up to 120 DPI. 120 DPI screens are a lot more "dense", pixels are closer together and fonts appear smaller yet sharper. Ultra-portables will pack even more pixels per inch, reaching 140 DPI. That is a pretty high number so the default Windows font sizes, designed for screens with 96 DPI, look very very small. I find that switching to Large Fonts designed for 120 DPI screens helps in making the laptop a lot more useable. Unfortunately, you will lose some screen real-estate since any text now will take up more pixels but you will still benefit from sharp text due to the high native DPI of the screen. To change to Large Fonts go to Display Control Panel, switch to Settings tab, click on Advanced and select Large size under DPI Settings. Note, Windows will ask to be restarted whenever changing the font DPI.

Some Windows programs out there (although few in numbers) are written to expect everyone to run their desktops at default DPI setting. These programs look a bit out-of-whack when run with Large Fonts, and sometimes they are not even usable; dialog buttons will be shown below the visible area of the dialog box so you cannot click on them. For this reason some people don't like to switch to Large Fonts, thinking it breaks certain programs. The truth is that it is those programs that are broken and their publishers don't test them properly. I rarely encounter programs that exhibit this broken behaviour, and when I do I consider myself lucky. If the program has this very obvious bug it probably has many others so I save myself aggravation and look elsewhere.

So now that you made this change you will actually have even less usable screen real-estate than before, albeit somewhat easier to use. I will outline how to claw that real-estate back in the part II...

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